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Nearly two years after a fire left dozens of seniors scrambling to find new homes, a Littleton apartment building is slowly filling up again.
To some local housing officials and former residents of the building, the seniors’ quest for a new place to live is emblematic of the larger issue of surging rental rates in the Denver-area market threatening to price out a portion of the population that can least afford them.
Many of the more than 130 residents evicted from the age 55-and-over complex after an April 2016 fire at one of two buildings at Southview Place Towers — now called The Windermere — have dispersed to subsidized housing and elsewhere. Colorado Community Media could not verify how many residents were able to return to the complex at 5820 S. Windermere St.
At least one couple, though, is glad to be back.
Carolyn and Jim Stubbert opted not to wait for the fall opening of the damaged building, instead moving into the complex’s undamaged eastern tower after living with their daughter for six months
“It was like coming back home,” Carolyn said. “We still like it. We’re legally blind, so we depend on all the services nearby.”
The couple’s rent was $850 a month for a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment before the fire. Their rent for a comparable apartment today is $1,000, still a few hundred dollars less than market rent in the south metro Denver area.
Stubbert, 79, said she’s thankful the building’s owners have taken steps to update the property, though she said she was disappointed in how they handled the exodus.
A fire that started near a dishwasher on April 6, 2016 damaged 24 apartments. The entire western tower was evacuated, and residents were informed 10 days later that their leases were being terminated so the building could be repaired and renovated.
“It was so difficult for everyone,” Stubbert said. “They wrote everyone a great big $500 check. That didn’t go very far in this market.”
The complex is owned by Tebo-Orvis LLC, a Superior-based company that bought the buildings three months before the fire for $30.5 million.
Last week, the company’s principal, Stephen Tebo, directed questions to business partner Heath Orvis, who directed questions to Andy Boian, CEO of Dovetail Solutions, a Denver-based crisis management public relations firm.
“I can tell you the residents displaced by the fire have been invited to come back,” Boian said.
He added that fewer than half of the building’s units have been leased.
Unlike the Stubberts, Ted Lemke has not been able to return. Lemke, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment at Southview, said he dislikes the one-bedroom apartment he rents in Englewood. He said he’d like to go back to Windermere, but the rent for his old apartment has gone from $1,000 a month to $1,200, which is too big of a jump for the 63-year-old who lives on Social Security and disability money.
“I lost so much in that move,” Lemke, who lives alone, said. “It was almost an impossible task to get out and find a new place to live so quickly.
“I’m really upset about the effects of the influx of people coming in and the real estate market going into orbit. For people on fixed incomes, it’s at the point where we can’t even afford to live anymore.”
Stubbert said the heroes of the story were the service organizations, government agencies and churches who stepped in to rescue elderly residents stuck in a precarious situation.
“They fed us, they helped us move and they helped people find places to go,” Stubbert said. “They were wonderful.”
The Red Cross operated a shelter where a dozen seniors spent more than a week. Church groups and Boy Scouts helped residents move their belongings. South Metro Housing Options, a low-income housing agency, and Arapahoe County officials helped place residents in new homes.
Collaboration was key, said Linda Haley, the division manager of Arapahoe County’s Housing and Community Development Services Division.
“The success of rehousing people is based on the strength of community relationships,” Haley said.
The residents who best landed on their feet were those with renters’ insurance, Haley said, though few in the building had it.
“People were not prepared for any kind of eventuality that would put them out of housing,” Haley said. “We’re talking people on oxygen, in wheelchairs. Most were spending 50 to 75 percent of their income on rent. They didn’t have room in their budgets to be saving for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent on a new apartment.”
Not enough housing
Haley said many residents moved into Southview thinking it was the last place they would live and were at a steep disadvantage in the 2016 rental market.
“Rents have gone astronomically higher, and it used to be you needed to make twice the rent to get an apartment, and now it’s three times,” Haley said. “These folks couldn’t meet that.”
South Metro Housing Options helped re-house residents who were unable to find other housing or move in with relatives, said Executive Director Jo Hamit.
Displaced Southview residents were bumped to the top of of waiting lists for spots in South Metro’s three subsidized apartment complexes, Hamit said, though she added the effort strained resources.
“We never have enough housing for people in need,” Hamit said. “We have wait lists for all of our properties. The wait list for rent vouchers is years long.”
Hamit wasn’t sure exactly how many people South Metro helped re-house, but was pleased with the collaboration she saw.
“I felt like we did a really good job given the circumstances,” Hamit said.
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